The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis by William Rubinstein (New York: Routledge, 1997, 267 pp., $25)
Here's what should be an easy one: Whose fault was the Holocaust? Your choices are (a) the Nazis or (b) the Allies. Most people would choose the Nazis, right? But there is a whole school of revisionist history that—get ready—blames the Allies or at least holds them as unindicted co-conspirators to genocide. The Allies could have rescued the Jews, so the argument goes, but didn't. Therefore, they're responsible for the Holocaust.
The main problem with this scenario, declares Holocaust historian William Rubinstein, is that it isn't true. Hence his highly documented and well-argued book, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved more Jews from the Nazis.
According to Rubinstein, the larger myth that more Jews could have been saved is composed of several lesser, component myths. There is, for example, the “Myth of Closed Doors,” the idea that restrictive and allegedly anti-Semitic immigration policies of the western democracies from 1933-39 led to the deaths of thousands of Jews who otherwise would have been saved. The trouble here, writes Rubinstein, is that “it is almost the precise opposite of the truth.”
Many German Jews remained in Nazi Germany, not due to Western emigration policies, but because they wrongly assumed Nazi anti-Semitism would eventually dissipate or that Hitler wouldn't last. Others couldn't bring themselves to leave their homeland or to emigrate to what a mere decade and a half earlier were “enemy” countries. By the time such stalwarts were prepared to flee, they couldn't. Moreover, those who did emigrate weren't necessarily exempted from the Holocaust. Tragically, many wound up in countries subsequently conquered by Nazi Germany and were deported to death camps—something no one could have anticipated in the early 1930s.
Rubinstein's careful analysis reveals that western democracies didn't block Jewish emigration and that they generally lowered barriers to German Jews pari passu with heightened Nazi attacks. He also claims that nearly three-quarters of German Jews emigrated prior to the war. It was the outbreak of war, rather than the democracies, that trapped the remaining Jews in Nazi Germany.
Rubinstein also debunks what he calls the “Myth of Plans for Rescue.” This is the claim that various feasible plans for saving Jews were ignored due to anti-Semitism or indifference. His argument is simple and straightforward: “No scheme which could possibly or realistically have rescued any of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe was actually proposed by anyone or by any group in the democracies during the war.” Of course, in hindsight, one might concoct seemingly workable plans. But these schemes are all armchair operations conceived after the fact by people who know how it all came out. Even so, there is no guarantee they would, in fact, have succeeded, had anyone thought of them at the time.
Virtually all proposed rescue plans, then and now, are rigorously examined by Rubinstein, who conclusively demonstrates their practical futility. Critics often forget, the author insists, that Jews in Nazi-occupied lands in 1939-45 were prisoners, not mere refugees. Thus, the Allies were powerless to prevent the wholesale slaughter, regardless of how they might have tinkered with immigration policies or how many strongly worded denunciations the United Nations might have issued. The only relevant “rescue operation” was to defeat the Axis powers—which, of course, the Allies made every effort to do.
It is sometimes claimed that toward the war's end certain Nazi leaders such as Himmler wanted to ransom Jews in exchange for money or wartime supplies (e.g., the so-called “blood-for-trucks” proposal). Failure of the Allies and mainstream Jewish leadership to take these proposals seriously is frequently used as evidence of their moral indifference to the plight of European Jewry. But Rubinstein contends that such “ransom” offers were largely disingenuous or, in any event, irrelevant since Hitler would never have agreed to them. His non-negotiable objective was the extermination of all Jews.
Another widely made charge: the Allies could have (and therefore should have) bombed Auschwitz, thus ending that death camp's activities and possibly freeing prisoners fortunate to escape in the confusion. Ignoring the fact that, had the Allies done so, critics would now likely denounce them for the deaths of innocent Jews that such an assault would surely have caused, there are other insurmountable problems with the argument. For one thing, before December 1943 it was logistically impossible for the Allies to bomb Auschwitz, which was too far to reach with an air strike some 1,000 miles away. Even afterward, when the Allies had captured Foggia air base in Italy, the mission would have been risky. Rubinstein maintains that the air force “lacked the intelligence base necessary to plan and execute a bombing raid” against Auschwitz. Nor did Allied bombing raids possess the pinpoint accuracy required to avoid killing prisoners and not leave the Nazi extermination apparatus operational.
(Critics have also argued that at least the rail lines carrying prisoners to the death camp could have been destroyed. But there is no evidence that so perilous and improbable an enterprise, even if successful, would have stopped or significantly slowed the death camps, given the Nazis’ effectiveness at rerouting.)
What about the allegation that more Jews could have been saved had Pope Pius XII spoken out?
“In all likelihood—a likelihood probably amounting to a near-certainty,” Rubinstein writes, “Hitler would have paid no heed whatever to any pronouncement on the Jews made by the Vatican (which had denounced Nazi anti-Semitism before the war began). Theoretically, and in hindsight, the Pope might have excommunicated all Catholic members of the SS (or of the Nazi Party) although the only likely effect of such a pronouncement would have been that the Nazis denounce the Pope as an agent of “Judeo-Bolshevism, and an impostor.”
Other charges against the Allies are cogently refuted by Rubinstein, leaving the impression that only hardline ideologues out to malign the democracies at all costs would continue to press them. To be sure, making sense of a vast diabolical wickedness such as the Holocaust is always difficult; that millions of Jews were methodically exterminated remains unimaginable even a half century later. Understandably, one is tempted to embrace some explanation—any explanation—that seemingly accounts for such an all-encompassing blackness, even a counter-intuitive one.
Yet our coming to terms with this dark truth of the 20th century is not well served by scapegoating the innocent, nor by concocting accusations against the very democratic nations that sought to liberate the afflicted from that obsessed mass-murderer hell-bent on their obliteration. From start to finish, responsibility for the Holocaust, as William Rubinstein ably demonstrates, rests with Hitler and his Nazi accomplices, not the Allies.
Mark Brumley writes from Napa, Calif.